Getting Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, off the world’s most delayed airports list

My post The world’s most delayed and most punctual airports, seems to have ignited a media frenzy within India.

Times of India carried snippets from the article Sunday 11th January, which became a national story, and was picked up later that morning by the TV networks.

A lot of Bangalore Aviation readers have been asking me questions relating to the article.

Why are Mumbai and Delhi airports at the top of the list of delayed flight arrivals?

It is actually very simple. At both airports the number of flights arriving per hour exceeds the capacity of the runways. At Mumbai, there are two runways, but they cross each other in an X shape. There are also limitations of taxiways, but, I will not go into such a high level of detail.

Bottom line, the capacity of Mumbai airport is 30 landings per hour, but with a little juggling and using the crossing runway, the Mumbai Air Traffic Control (ATC) is able to push the number up to 36 per hour. But the demand is even higher.

It’s a similar situation with Delhi airport, which inaugurated a new third runway, plagued with problems. Drainage, non-functional aeronautical aids, and to top it off, some faceless bureaucrat, probably encouraged by a narcissist politician, allowed a 40 feet (4 storey) tall statue of Lord Shiva along the path of the runway. Now the new runway cannot be used by the Airbus A380, the very aircraft it was specifically built for, till that statue is removed. And we all know, how very impossible that is, in a religiously charged India.

Add to this excess demand and weather. Fog in Delhi, and rains in Mumbai. The system is so over-capacity that it provides the ATC absolutely no room to manoeuvre during bad weather, and flights get even more delayed.

If Mumbai and Delhi are at the top of the list for delayed arrivals, why are they not at the top of the list for delayed departures?

The clock gets reset to the revised departure time, due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft. The departure time is measured when the airplane doors are closed. Airlines get their passengers on board, close the doors, and then wait for taxi clearance. Due to the traffic jam in the skies, you will find that your aircraft will taxi, and then wait in line, for a long time, to take-off.

Why is Bengaluru International Airport (BIA) at rank 4 in the Top 5 list of most delayed arrivals? Is it not an efficient airport?

BIA is an efficient airport, no doubt. I suspect three reasons. One is thrust on to BIA, one is temporary, and one needs to be addressed.

One, and this is the biggest reason, as the airport spokesperson said, Bangalore’s dependence on trunk routes. i.e. Bangalore-Mumbai, Bangalore-Delhi, and more especially after the increase in fares, which dropped the bottom out of regional flights. Flights from Mumbai and Delhi, may leave their gate/stand on time, but get delayed in take-off. So the blame lands up on Bangalore’s door-step for the late arrival. It is unfair.

Two, last year, when the new airport opened, there was massive disruption for about a month. I suspect this brought down the overall performance of Bangalore. On the positive side, everyone at BIA have been working very hard, and the kinks have been solved. I suspect Bangalore will be off the list in 2009.

Third, and I have highlighted it in my original post, is weather. Bangalore suffers from fog, between 15th November to 15th February, typically between 3AM and 8:30AM. 6AM to 10AM is peak period, and the fog impacts the performance of arriving and departing aircraft. While fog is limited to a short period in the year, the disruptions are significant enough, to lower the overall annual performance.

The Instrument Landing System at BIA, has been installed incorrectly. Despite being CAT-II capable, which will permit operations in poorer visibility conditions, the equipment is forced to function at CAT-I level. (For a better understanding of CAT levels please read this Wikipedia article).

How, the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which is responsible for the equipment, and has installed over a hundred ILS systems, managed this blunder, is beyond me. Repairs of the installation were to have been carried out during the first six months of operations, i.e. by end November 2008, but given the delays this winter season, they obviously have not.

What is the solution?

We all want to fly during the peak hours of 6AM and 10AM and 5PM and 7PM.

While domestic traffic has declined, the demand during peak hours is sharper. Now that the economy is in the tank, we want to reduce our costs and try and complete all our work in a day trip, or at least not waste the working hours, flying.

Mumbai and Delhi are still way too overloaded, especially during the peak period.

With overall reduction in air traffic and shrinking incomes, there is pressure from the private airport operators MIAL and DIAL, on the ATC to accommodate more flights, as they scramble to earn more income. I cannot fault them. They are in business for profit, not charity, but this adds to the problem.

This economic connection, is the single path to solutions.

The first part of the solution lies with the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA). It is time they woke up from their slumber, audit the airports, and allocate the maximum number of flights per hour. Any airport scheduling more flights than capacity pays a hefty fine, and is open to punitive law suits from delayed passengers for permitting flights greater than capacity.

To help the airports demand the needed reductions from the airlines, the second part of the solution lies in changing the system of flight slot allocations. India follows a system of “historic rights”, i.e. once an airline gets a slot, then they continue to get that slot, till such time they revoke it. Which no airline ever does. Move to system of performance based allocation :

  • If a flight gets delayed, they loose their place in the queue. Similar to an appointment at the doctor, wait for the next appointment to open up, rather than delaying everyone in the queue behind you.
  • Mr. Airline you want a premium landing or take-off slot, pay a premium for it. Hey, but that is unfair to the low cost airlines ? Sorry, but life is not fair.

The airlines can recover the premiums they pay for the slot, from the passengers as a higher fare. They used to charge Rs. 150 ~ Rs. 300 “congestion surcharge”, in any case. We passengers who are flying during peak hours, are already paying for them benefit.

Third, and this is partly under way, optimise the air traffic control system. Implement Gagan and the GBAS systems fast. Encourage airlines to use Performance Based Navigation (PBN), and reward those who do.

In the mean time, force the air traffic controllers and pilots to perform efficiently. Right now, the system calls for a two minute separation or 5 nautical miles (10km). World over airports function with a 90 second separation, some even at 60 seconds. A 25 per cent reduction in separation from 120 seconds to 90 seconds at the major airports, will result in a 50 per cent increase in capacity from 30 movements to 45 movements.

Pilots don’t react fast enough in the sky, SPIN ‘EM. They can land nice and easy sometime before the day is out. Foreign pilots cannot speak English fluently, DE-CERTIFY ‘EM. They can fly in less congestion countries. Controllers cannot cope, TRANSFER ‘EM. Let them go to nice and easy Jabalpur, Guwahati, or one of the smaller airports in India.

We risk a future similar to La Guardia airport, where the US Department of Transportation is forcing slot reductions, since the system cannot cope any more.

It is time for some radical solutions to this creaking system.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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